Many students are instructed, as part of their research program, to perform a literature review, without always understanding what a literature review is.
Most are aware that it is a process of gathering information from other sources and documenting it, but few have any idea of how to evaluate the information, or how to present it.
A literature review can be a precursor in the introduction of a research paper, or it can be an entire paper in itself, often the first stage of large research projects, allowing the supervisor to ascertain that the student is on the correct path.
A literature review is a critical and in depth evaluation of previous research. It is a summary and synopsis of a particular area of research, allowing anybody reading the paper to establish why you are pursuing this particular research program. A good literature review expands upon the reasons behind selecting a particular research question.
It is not a chronological catalog of all of the sources, but an evaluation, integrating the previous research together, and also explaining how it integrates into the proposed research program. All sides of an argument must be clearly explained, to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.
It is not a collection of quotes and paraphrasing from other sources. A good literature review should also have some evaluation of the quality and findings of the research.
A good literature review should avoid the temptation of impressing the importance of a particular research program. The fact that a researcher is undertaking the research program speaks for its importance, and an educated reader may well be insulted that they are not allowed to judge the importance for themselves. They want to be re-assured that it is a serious paper, not a pseudo-scientific sales advertisement.
Whilst some literature reviews can be presented in a chronological order, it is best avoided.
For example, a review of Victorian Age Physics, could present J.J. Thomson’s famous experiments in a chronological order. Otherwise, this is usually perceived as being a little lazy, and it is better to organize the review around ideas and individual points.
As a general rule, certainly for a longer review, each paragraph should address one point, and present and evaluate all of the evidence, from all of the differing points of view.
Evaluating the credibility of sources is one of the most difficult aspects, especially with the ease of finding information on the internet.
The only real way to evaluate is through experience, but there are a few tricks for evaluating information quickly, yet accurately.
There is such a thing as ‘too much information,’ and Google does not distinguish or judge the quality of results, only how search engine friendly a paper is. This is why it is still good practice to begin research in an academic library. Any journals found there can be regarded as safe and credible.
The next stage is to use the internet, and this is where the difficulties start. It is very difficult to judge the credibility of an online paper. The main thing is to structure the internet research as if it were on paper. Bookmark papers, which may be relevant, in one folder and make another subfolder for a ‘shortlist.’
If it sets off alarm bells, there may be something wrong, and the paper is probably of a low quality. Be very careful not to fall into the trap of rejecting research just because it conflicts with your hypothesis. Failure to do this will completely invalidate the literature review and potentially undermine the research project. Any research that may be relevant should be moved to the shortlist folder.
The next stage is to critically evaluate the paper and decide if the research is sufficient quality. Think about it this way: The temptation is to try to include as many sources as possible, because it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a long bibliography equates to a good paper. A smaller number of quality sources is far preferable than a long list of irrelevance.
Check into the credentials of any source upon which you rely heavily for the literature review. The reputation of the University or organization is a factor, as is the experience of the researcher. If their name keeps cropping up, and they have written many papers, the source is usually OK.
Look for agreements. Good research should have been replicated by other independent researchers, with similar results, showing that the information is usually fairly safe to use.
If the process is proving to be difficult, and in some fields, like medicine and environmental research, there is a lot of poor science, do not be afraid to ask a supervisor for a few tips. They should know some good and reputable sources to look at. It may be a little extra work for them, but there will be even more work if they have to tear apart a review because it is built upon shaky evidence.
Conducting a good literature review is a matter of experience, and even the best scientists have fallen into the trap of using poor evidence. This is not a problem, and is part of the scientific process; if a research program is well constructed, it will not affect the results.
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